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Is Occupy Wall Street Responsible for a New York Crime Wave? | The Nation

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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Is Occupy Wall Street Responsible for a New York Crime Wave?

If you go down to Zuccotti Park, you’re not likely to witness any dangerous activity, but according to the conservative media the Occupy Wall Street demonstration is causing an outbreak of sex, drugs and violence in New York City. According to articles in the New York Post, and conservative bloggers, television and radio shows that take their cues from Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, the protests themselves are not only filled with criminals, they are indirectly responsible for an increase in violent crimes miles away. There’s only one problem with the claims: they vary from thinly to totally unsupported.  

According to a Post article last week, New York saw an increase in shootings over several weeks and it’s because the NYPD are too busy monitoring Occupy Wall Street to prevent real crimes from occurring. “The number of people shot surged 154 percent two weeks ago—to 56 from 22 over the same week last year—and spiked 28 percent in the last month…. Four high-ranking cops point the finger at Occupy Wall Street protesters, saying their rallies pull special crime-fighting units away from the hot zones where they’re needed.” The Post relied entirely on anonymous sources, adding that 3,000 cops per day were being dispatched to handle the protests.

The story was picked up by other conservative outlets. Radio host Mike Gallagher talked about the story at great length, saying it was justification for the police to eject the protesters with fire hoses. Multiple conservative blogs repeated the story. Only one—Howard Portnoy of Hot Air—had the good sense to admit the obvious possibility that this was just random variation and no causal relationship had been definitely established: “So does this imply a cause-and-effect relationship between the two phenomena? Not necessarily. When you look at the small sample numbers available for comparison—56 shootings last week as compared with 22 for the same week in 2010—the finding may well be outside the realm of statistical significance.” But then he goes on to blame Occupy Wall Street for not just the overall rise in shootings but a specific one. “The drain on resources in high-crime neighborhoods was underscored dramatically last week when a pregnant Brooklyn mother was killed by a rooftop gunman.”

Neither the Post nor Portnoy cites any evidence that the cops would have been able to prevent that particular crime if Occupy Wall Street were not occurring. As for the claim that crime in the city as a whole rose as a direct result of police deployments caused by Occupy Wall Street, the most generous description would be that it’s unproven. “This is, of course, one of those questions for which there is basically no answer,” explains Michael Jacobson president of the Vera Institute of Justice. “First, you’d have to track shootings on a daily/weekly basis over time. I’m sure when you do that, you’d see some marked variation up or down based on a number of factors (seasonality, gang activity etc.). Then, assuming you saw some significant increase in the last couple of months, you’d have to rule out every other possible explanation to get to the ‘it’s the lack of cops on patrol’ conclusion.” Note that that neither the Post nor conservatives who repeated the Post’s assertions considered other possible explanations.  

“Could that be an explanation? Possibly,” says Jacobson. “On the other hand, the NYPD reassigned over 1,000 cops many years ago from patrol to anti-terrorism duties, thus permanently lowering patrol strength, and all crime has declined since then. These are never easy or direct relationships to measure so basically anyone can attribute any common sense (or not) theory to explain ups or downs in crime—especially in the short term. They occasionally might even be correct, but usually not.”

Says Frank Zimring, a law professor at urban crime expert at the University of California at Berkeley: "Any attribution of cause in that sort of setting is what psychologists call a 'projective technique' which tells us much more about the person coming to the conclusion than about the processes that generate lethal violence in big cities."

Moreover, the whole accusation’s premise—that crime is up in New York—is suspect. For the week ending on October 23, according to the NYPD, there were ten murders in New York, precisely the same number as the same week in 2010. Over the preceding four weeks there thirty-seven murders, down from 47 in 2010. That’s a 21.3 percent decrease. Total crime complaints for the twenty-eight-day period were 415, down 6.5 percent from 444 last year.

Nor do conservatives ask whether it is really necessary to post 3,000 cops per day to Zuccotti Park. Perhaps that is a bit of authoritarian overkill?

Of course, if you imagine Zuccotti Park is a den of iniquity, then you probably do think we need an overwhelming police presence there. Earlier in October the Post reported, “Lured by cheap drugs and free food, creepy thugs have infiltrated the crowd of protesters camped out in Zuccotti Park for Occupy Wall Street.” Also, some people are having sex there!

When repeated on Fox News by Steve Doocy that transmogrified into the wild exaggeration that the “number one reason people are going to this thing: the food. There is free food.”  

It seems that the conservative media will do anything they can to discredit Occupy Wall Street rather than engage with their ideas.

With research by Josh Eidelson 

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